FDA Does Not Need To Label Genetically Engineered Foods

3 December 1999

By Stentor Danielson

While working at the register of Country Harvest Market this summer, I often rang up orders containing tomatoes. Since I did not immediately recognize all of the varieties of tomatoes sold at Country Harvest, I would ask the customer what kind it was, so that I could charge accordingly. To my surprise, many did not know. I had to ask myself, "If these people don't even know what kind of tomatoes they're buying, what else might they not know about them?"

This story comes to mind now because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently engaged in the second of three hearings on genetically engineered foods. Consumer groups are pressing the FDA to require labeling of all foods containing genetic modifications.

These groups point to a study done at Cornell University that showed a certain modified strain of corn is toxic to monarch butterflies. The danger of such an unintentional consequence, they say, warrants warning labels. Though it is wise to be wary of any new food product, these groups are overreacting to the perceived threat of biotechnology.

In a sense, all foods grown by humans today are the product of genetic engineering. When humans first came to the Americas, full-grown wild corn was even punier than the baby corn that you see in the stir-fry at Frank. But, over the centuries, selective breeding has improved the stock. Current gene-splicing techniques are simply speeding up the process.

In fact, one might say that genetic engineering, though more mysterious than conventional techniques, is safer. It can specifically target the genes in question, reducing the chance that an unwanted trait will come along with the desired one. This will only become more true as scientists increase their understanding of genetics.

But the possibility for error that worries consumer groups is still there, and extolling the wonders of science does little to soothe their fears. What can do that is testing.

Currently, testing of genetically engineered foods is voluntary, though the FDA reports that most producers do comply. This makes sense. Imagine the loss of business that would result if word got out that tomatoes from Uncle Dave's House of Produce were making people sick. It would be in Uncle Dave's best interest to test his tomatoes whenever he altered them, in order to ensure that such an incident would not occur.

There are always exceptions, however, and in the rush to get a new variety to the shelves businesses might cut corners. So mandatory testing of all new strains of produce is a good idea. Such testing would not only calm those who worry about the content of their food, but also eliminate the need for labeling.

The goal of the testing would be to determine not only if the item is safe for human consumption, but more importantly whether or not it is nutritionally and chemically equivalent to an unengineered item. Many of the modifications that scientists are making or planning, such as pest and drought resistance, shoud not affect the edible portion. Others are meant to enhance the desirable qualities that the product already exhibits -- tastier tomatoes, for example.

If the scientists have done their jobs right, the item should contain no new, harmful chemicals and the nutritional content should not be affected. Testing could determine whether or not they were successful. It would also allow more specific labeling in cases where an alteration has occurred -- "This product contains 50 percent less vitamin C than an ordinary tomato," or "This product may trigger peanut allergies," for example.

In this way, the FDA would be fulfilling its mission to ensure that the foods on our supermarket shelves are safe to eat. A vague warning of "this product has been genetically engineered" will mean little to most consumers.The average consumer hardly understands the processes involved in selective breeding, much less the dangers consumer groups see in genetically altered foods. More specific labeling when a change has occurred, and a reassuring absence of warnings when none has, will be more helpful to the average shopper.

What does it hurt to add a warning for the appeasement of those who are paranoid about the origin of their foods? More than you might think.

When genetically engineered corn (or any other product) is considered a separate product from regular corn -- regardless of whether there is an actual difference in the taste or nutritional value -- growers, distributors and stores must keep the two separate. The hassle of segregation creates costs to businesses that are not experienced when all products that look the same and taste the same are not separated based on where they came from.

Additionally, there is the stigma attached to a warning label. A consumer not familiar with the debate over genetic modification may see the label and assume genetic modification is a bad thing. The thought of playing with genes can conjure up worrisome images of The Fly and Jurassic Park. This, in turn, would hurt sales of genetically modified varieties.

The increased costs of segregating genetically engineered foods and the reduced sales that would likely stem from warning labels would constitute a powerful incentive for companies not to continue to improve their crops. But scientists are not modifying foods for their own amusement. Stopping progress would be a loss for all of us.

The world's population recently hit six billion and is showing no signs of slowing any time soon. All of those people need to eat. In the past, an answer was found in increasing the technology of farm equipment and fertilizers. But such advances have not permanently solved the problem. The higher yields that new strands of staple crops can bring may prove necessary to avert a Malthusian crisis.

However, under the current profit-conscious economic climate, these advances cannot be made without financial incentives. Labeling of genetically altered foods would be counterproductive if producing the highest quality and quantity of food is our goal.

Consumer groups' worries over genetically modified foods are not unfounded. And they are right to ask the FDA to help protect consumers from inadvertant dangers in new strains of produce. But labeling foods as genetically engineered is not the way to go about it.

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